Wednesday 03 Sep 2014

Information and opinions presented here do not always represent the views of the American Heart Association.

STORIES FROM THE HEART: Nurse who missed her own stroke symptoms now encouraging others to learn warning signs

Published: 1:50 pm CDT, October 10, 2013

As a nurse, Lorena Rivera is used to treating stroke patients.

Being one never entered her mind, even though, as it turned out, she’d already had two strokes.

Her condition went undiagnosed because the possibility of a stroke never entered the mind of the doctors she worked alongside, either.

When her arm was numb, doctors said she probably slept wrong. Headaches and other symptoms – even when she lost her vision while at a bank – were labeled as effects of migraines.

“I was talking to the teller and the next thing I knew is, I could not see on my left side. It was totally black,” she said. “I only had vision on my right eye. That was alarming. I called the doctor and he said it was probably related to migraine again.”

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Lorena was 44 at the time, and living a healthy lifestyle. She didn’t drink alcohol or smoke. She was physically active, including doing tae kwon do with her daughters, and she maintained a healthy diet.

“I had never had an issue with hypertension and I was not diabetic,” she said. “I don’t like my kids to eat fatty foods. I don’t bake cakes because I don’t want them to get addicted to the sugar and I tried not to buy snacks that were full of calories.”

Then she was struck by pancreatitis. While in the hospital, she told a doctor about those other symptoms. An MRI was ordered to see whether they were being caused by a tumor.

Instead the pictures revealed two “mini strokes,” known as transient ischemic attacks. That’s when the strokes were discovered.

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Lorena, a clinical nurse educator at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., now has an even better grasp on the fact that anyone can become a stroke patient at any time. She encourages everyone to know how to spot a stroke F.A.S.T. – that is, look for face drooping, arm weakness and-or speech difficulty, then call 9-1-1 and get the person to the hospital immediately.

In her hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., she’s become a volunteer for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization fighting heart disease and stroke. She’s learned that stroke is the No. 4 killer of Americans, and is a leading cause of long-term disability.

Lorena is among several survivors featured in an awareness video for the Together to End Stroke campaign. She attends events, and is involved in advocacy efforts, such as asking Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson to support legislation that would fund awareness programs and provide access to care that could prevent or greatly minimize stroke disability.

As for her health, Lorena takes several medicines, and is even more mindful now of what she puts in her mouth. Her message to others is to pay close attention to everything, and especially to listen to the messages their bodies are sending.

“If something is out of the ordinary, have yourself checked,” she said. “Find out what’s going on. Stroke is real! It can happen to anyone. Repercussions could be debilitating if not diagnosed early. I want to make a difference in someone else’s life!”

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Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell? 

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

Heart disease survivor puts focus on health, giving back

While boy awaits transplant to beat incredibly rare condition, family accepts ‘new normal’

She ran a 5K and had cardiac arrest the same morning; now she’s an EMT, AHA volunteer

  • neurodoc

    Great article, but must correct you in saying the two “transient ischemic attacks” were seen on the MRI. The definition of TIAs itself is that there are no change on brain imaging. A Transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a brief episode of neurologic
    dysfunction resulting from focal temporary cerebral ischemia not
    associated with cerebral infarction (as would be seen on brain imaging. What they likely saw were two small strokes on her MRI.